Rave4ColumnsThe English writer Max Porter’s antic new novel is presided over by a monstrous rural personification of chaos, decay, and renewal ... I am not going to tell you a thing about the dead-of-night magic-realist denouement of Lanny, except to say that it is written, like the whole novel, with an extraordinary verve that’s by turns lyric, eerie, and comical ... Rivulets of italic conversation literally twist and turn on the page, forming typographic meanders and little orphaned oxbow lakes of text. Graphical experiment aside, this whole strand of the book amounts in itself to a small comic masterpiece, capturing the energy and rue—sometimes the malignity—of contemporary home-counties vernacular ... Porter’s main characters have discrete and engaging voices ... Porter may also have written the first great Brexit novel: a book about the deepest, oldest, strangest sense of itself that England possesses.
MixedThe GuardianAs a study in vulnerability, but also in types of speech and silence that surround the ailing body, The Empathy Exams is exceptional ... [but] you could object that too much of the personal revelation in this book—the bruised past and bruited pain—is of an order that would not alarm anyone out of adolescence: drink, drugs and bad sex presented as a kind of radical dysfunction. It\'s the same with some of Jamison\'s forays into more violent milieus, which can feel (even if it\'s not true: she recounts a hideous mugging) like slick Vice-style slumming ... The more vexing problems, I think, are tonal and stylistic. For all her exacting attitude to her own place in the stories she tells, and her clear indebtedness (along with everyone else) to David Foster Wallace, Jamison gives in at times to dismayingly vague, cod-poetic or plain overfamiliar formulations ... The more instructive exemplars for the kind of essayism Jamison wants to practice are Joan Didion and Janet Malcolm ... Jamison at her best—in the essays on bodies, her own and others\'—is almost their equal.
Positive4ColumnsIf the book disappoints in places it is perhaps because the subjects of Malcolm’s profiles have grown less colorful in that time ... Malcolm’s real or affected surprise at [a subject\'s] jargon—see also a tin-eared and dated piece about the tonal perils of email—is the more deflating because she has been so often so good at paying attention to the lures and revelations of her subjects’ language. There remain, however, the considerable pleasures, and the significance, of Malcolm’s own language ... Such is Malcolm’s unsparing attention to the grotesquerie of the hearings that you long to know what she would have written, had she chosen to, about Brett Kavanaugh ... She has always been at her best in a room—artist’s studio, courtroom, or analyst’s office—setting out to describe a stranger and his or her motivations. Nobody’s Looking at You contains enough of that version of Malcolm—spending time with the aged owners of the Argosy Bookshop in New York, or attending the last broadcast by radio veteran George Jellinek—to make it a graceful (albeit nostalgic) successor to Forty-One False Starts.
Positive4 Columns\"In its pursuit of perilous ambiguity, The Water Cure has the quality of a folk or fairy tale ... At the level of its language, Mackintosh’s novel is something else again: a book so saturated with intense and unsettling imagery that its sentences feel like face-fulls of polluted sea spray. In places Mackintosh is just luridly metaphorical: a stillborn child resembles a glass paperweight, physical or emotional trauma is like a poison that leaches into hair, organs, blood. Or her prose is satisfyingly rhythmic and at the same time semantically untethered... At their most achieved, however, Mackintosh’s sentences are strict, cool containers for a variety of organic or atmospheric disintegrations ... In the shape of its narrative, The Water Cure is less extraordinary than in its texture. There is a predictability to the novel’s violent conclusion, as it mimics and reverses the closing scenes of The Tempest ... Which is also to say that Mackintosh has written a novel that feels sorely of its time.\
Positive4Columns\"Tóibín never labors his book’s point about the excesses of masculinity, preferring to focus on telling details and their analogues in his subjects’ work. Through them, he makes Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know an engaging study of influence, ambition, love—and their discontents.\
MixedThe Irish TimesA book that doesn’t quite engage or inform on the scale that It’s All in Your Head did ... It might be worth asking what kind of storyteller she is. At times a little flat footed ... O’Sullivan’s case studies sometimes feel very similarly structured, and only go so far ... On the other hand...there is clearly a value in directing this established medico-literary genre at an illness like epilepsy ... one of the larger, more humane achievements of her book is to have broadened our sense of what a storm in the brain might look like, or feel like.
Positive4ColumnsMarina Benjamin’s intense, vagrant, and personal book Insomnia is a timely arrival. But unlike the pop-science studies of sleep professionals...Insomnia wants to know what we might learn from our failure to sleep, from \'lurid nights\' and \'enervating mania\' ... Benjamin’s book is richly stocked with literary references to lack of sleep, its pains and occasional pleasures ... Her prose is written in sharp poetic fragments, and resembles in places the mordant aphorisms of E. M. Cioran, the Romanian philosopher who was reputed not to have slept for fifty years ... Benjamin has written a book that attempts stylistically to sound like its subject: fragmented, digressive, at times delirious ... This might be less, or more, than the sleepless reader wishes to hear. Benjamin’s approach to her subject is deliberately at odds with the current popular literature on sleep and its discontents ... It might keep you awake, but in solacing and inquiring company.
Positive4ColumnsMoshfegh gives us with amazing narrative blankness—page after page, month by month, chapter upon chapter—the frictionless feeling of the depressive’s days unspooling, dissolving ... The answers given by My Year of Rest and Relaxation are ambiguous, perhaps because (as in life) it is unclear what would constitute a clear look at disaster in the first place. At least, that seems the implication of this comically enervated novel’s ending, which comes up fast to meet us after all the longueurs that have gone before.
Mixed4Columns\"In its retelling of such histories, Sharp is a timely and acute book. You have to wonder, however, about how much work a term like \'sharpness\' can be made to do, and what it distracts us from ... her implication is that real writing involves some abjuring of action in the name of ambiguity, doubt, and subtlety of opinion. I suspect some of the women in Sharp may have demurred at that. And the distinction raises the suspicion that others in this period (black writers, feminist writers) might have been \'sharp\' in some of the same, and many different, ways ... There are good answers to that question, and Dean gives us some of them...But Dean is not the closest of readers, and so we don’t get much feeling for how these modes of skepticism and ambivalence are made and expressed in language.\
PositiveBookforum\"A smart and sleightful novel ... In some respects, there is an orthodox novel of late-twentieth-century American family life lurking inside Men and Apparitions, but the novel is more essay collection than cross-generational saga ... Most of [Tillman\'s] constellating of culture is sharp and sharply expressed ... Among its many other wise and witty lines of thought, Men and Apparitions is a vexing inquiry into the recent sexual-political past.\
Positive4Columns\"Several of the pieces in Feel Free are avowedly close to home: they describe her childhood and adolescence in north London, her sense in middle age of coming adrift from the screen-bound culture around her, the displacements involved in being a mixed-race English writer living in New York. Much of Smith’s personal is quite political, even when most shut-in or seemingly nostalgic … The least interesting essays in Feel Free are those in which Smith’s human subjects are skillfully but rather too clearly delineated, leaving little room for inherent contradictions … Perhaps it’s not surprising that the best of Feel Free comes in Smith’s extended book reviews, written for Harper’s, where the constraint of subject seems also a license to build and inhabit the contrary sort of character she wants in her novels.\
Mixed4Columns...the basic story is never less than engaging and instructive ... As Mokhtar gets near to his goal, Eggers keeps us close to the complex, terrifying texture of life in Yemen as things unravel ... As a tribute to its subject, it’s exemplary, and one can already imagine the sympathetic Hollywood version, perhaps played a little more for laughs. But as a piece of reportage, with all that implies of skepticism and scope? For all the details of rural roadblocks and AK-47s, the book is pretty light on the actual geopolitics of the Yemen conflict. And Eggers is at times weirdly nonjudgmental ... A stricter brief might have forced Eggers to a more exacting and engaged version of Mokhtar’s undeniably intriguing tale; instead the book reads at times like an extension of the marketing literature for an expensive, if hard won, product.
Susan Sontag, Ed. by Benjamin Taylor
Mixed4Columns...in Debriefing you will find first-person narrators whose sententious, importuning tone sharpens aphorisms that wouldn’t sound out of place in Sontag’s greatest essays—or in her diaries, where she rehearsed the style ... Do these stories stand on their own, free of the essays to which they are closely affianced, independent of the influences Sontag felt, if her journals are to be credited, with real pain? The answer may depend on what we mean by 'story.' There are only eleven pieces in Debriefing—eight were gathered already in I, Etcetera (1978)—and a good third of them are simply tone deaf, straining, or dull ... It is when Sontag scants all short-story or novelistic convention and passes off memoir, travel diary, Perec-style inventory, or heightened reportage as short fiction that she actually excels.
PositiveBookforumMcBride's descriptions of sex, from Eily's perspective, are among the most remarkable passages in the novel ... So arresting is the language McBride gives to her female protagonists, it would be possible to feel aggrieved that so much of The Lesser Bohemians is dominated by a conventional narrative voice and prose ... If The Lesser Bohemians is the more affirming twin of McBride's first novel, its ultimate calm seems only to half-drown a disquieting past, or eruptive future.
Matthew G. Kirschenbaum
PositiveThe Guardian...[an] unexpectedly engaging history of word processing ... In part, Track Changes is one of those histories of the everyday in which the broader claims are often open to question. 'Each of us remembers our first time' using a word processor, Kirschenbaum claims. But this is surely true only of generations that witnessed notable innovations ... [the] variety of attitudes and habits proves mildly less interesting than the history of the technology itself, because the former amounts to very little in the end ... Track Changes is as much the story of their distracting emotions as it is of what they wrote and how.